The secret origin of ‘Professor Marston and the Wonder Women’

12:00 a.m. Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017 Movies & TV
American-Statesman Staff
Angela Robinson directs Bella Heathcote, left, and Rebecca Hall in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” The movie was shot in only 25 days last year. Contributed by Claire Folger

A secret origin: Eight years or so ago, a film and television writer/director and comics fan named Angela Robinson received as a gift writer Les Daniels’ book “Wonder Woman: The Complete History.”

She started reading about an academic, inventor, advice columnist and comic book writer named William Moulton Marston, the gentleman who invented Wonder Woman and wrote her earliest adventures. Like anyone who found out about Marston’s unique situation, the more she read, the more Robinson was fascinated.

Robinson had made a few features — a teen lesbian “Charlie’s Angels” tribute called “D.E.B.S.” in 2004, a for-hire gig helming “Herbie: Fully Loaded” in 2005 — and at the time was working in television. There was some writing and directing on “The L Word” here, some time on the HBO show “Hung,” some time on “True Blood.” Not a bad career thus far.

But Robinson, a lesbian and lifelong Wonder Woman fan, couldn’t get the Marston story out of her head.

Marston was an academic with a sort of wacky take on psychology who, with his brilliant wife, Elizabeth, invented (but did not patent) the lie detector. He, and probably his wife, became involved with a 22-year-old student named Olive Byrne.

The three lived together, sharing their lives and raising a family. And Marston decided that his quasi-feminist theory of “loving submission” (usually of men toward women and often involving bondage) as the way toward universal peace was best expressed in the then-new form of comic books.

Hence, the Amazon princess Wonder Woman, who headed to Man’s World to show them the way, often by tying people up or getting tied up herself. (If you haven’t read “Golden Age” Wonder Woman, i.e. the Wonder Woman stories of the 1940s, do yourself a favor and check them out.)

Unlike the creation stories of Superman or Batman or Spider-Man, the story behind Wonder Woman has not been particularly well-known. Robinson couldn’t understand why.

“It’s an incredible story, period,” Robinson says. “I became obsessed with telling it.”

So she did.

Robinson was in Austin in September for a Fantastic Fest screening of the excellent “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women,” the feature film she wrote and directed about the Marston family, which opens in Austin on Oct. 13. Starring Luke Evans, Rebecca Hall and Bella Heathcoate, “Professor Marston” is, essentially, a triangular love story about creativity, pushing social norms, psychology and, yes, sex (though not nearly as much as you might think).

As sometimes happens with Hollywood obsessions, Robinson says she spent eight or so years trying to get the film made. She went to the Smithsonian and looked at Marston’s papers and read his books, including the amazingly titled “Emotions of Normal People.” Working on the script was a very long process of, as she puts it, nights and weekends.

“I was writing it on spec” as she worked on other projects, Robinson says. “Part of me didn’t think I’d really be able to make the film, and a lot of times I was like, ‘This is a futile endeavor, I will not be able to get the funding.’ But I kept doing research on the Marstons and investigating ideas, and I just stayed fascinated.”

Then, in 2014, something interesting happened: Journalist Jill Lepore published “The Secret History of Wonder Woman,” her own exhaustive, brilliant look at the Marston family. The book became a New York Times best-seller. Did this help or hurt Robinson’s film?

There’s a bit of a pause.

“I don’t know,” Robinson says, carefully. “My film is not an adaptation of the Lepore book, which confuses people. There’s kind of been a convergence of interest in Marstons’ story over the past few years in a way there wasn’t before. I looked for everything I could about the family for a long, long time, and for the most part it was not there. Then there was this explosion of interest.”

Within a few years, Lepore’s book was out, as was comic book historian Tim Hanley’s “Wonder Woman Unbound: The Curious History of the World’s Most Famous Heroine.” Over in the comic books themselves, superstar writer Grant Morrison’s graphic novel “Wonder Woman: Earth One” drew on Marston’s imagery, while “Wonder Woman” scribe Greg Rucka made canonical the idea that Wonder Woman is bisexual.

Eventually, “Professor Marston” got on track, finding sympathetic producers (“Transparent” creator Jill Soloway is listed as an executive producer, while Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures distributes) and a whip-smart cast. Shot in an incredibly tight 25 days in and around Boston last October, Robinson says she completed “Marston” just in time for its Toronto International Film Festival debut in September.

American-Statesman Staff
From left, Bella Heathcote stars as Olive Byrne, Luke Evans as Dr. William Marston and Rebecca Hall as Elizabeth Marston in “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women.” Contributed by Claire Folger/Annapurna Pictures

Perhaps the most impressive trick in “Marston”? Showing a sexy, queer, polyamorous relationship without becoming smarmy. Indeed, Robinson points to a key love scene as the point at which she realized the film was truly working.

“To me, the dialectic in the movie was between fantasy and reality,” Robinson says. “When these three people finally come together, it was about freedom and fantasy. There was so much joy and fun and sexiness in that scene. That was really important to me. I didn’t want to shy away from the sexuality, but it never got exploitative. You really felt their love. That scene is really special.”

Robinson also thought that her time in television helped tell such a complex story. “In television, you shift point of view all the time; you’re always swapping out POV,” Robinson says. “In movies, you are usually just sticking with the protagonist, with their view of events. With this story, it was necessary to see it from several angles.”

But what is most striking about “Professor Marston and the Wonder Women” is the extent to which it could be about a family in 2017 rather than 1937. The notion of a family built on a three-way romantic partnership isn’t any more socially acceptable now than it was then. Not to mention the fact that the Marstons thought the social progress of women was going to proceed at a much faster rate than it has actually occurred.

Robinson nods. “We just finished this movie (in August), so I have not watched it much with audiences,” she says, “and I did find myself thinking, ‘This could be yesterday.’”

Robinson continues: “They thought a woman president was around the bend. There is some material for the electronic press kit that was shot right before the 2016 election and everyone thought Hillary (Clinton) was going to be president. It’s laughable to think about now, but I remember shooting that stuff and thinking, ‘Maybe this will be passe by the time the film comes out.’”

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